Review: No Longer Strangers

No Longer Strangers, Gregory Coles, Foreword by Jen Pollock Michel. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021.

Summary: A personal memoir on struggling to fit in and giving up on belonging to pursue Christ, and in the end, finding both.

Gregory Coles grew up struggling to fit in. He was a third culture kid, American-born but raised in Indonesia, returning to the U.S. in college. He grew up pudgy, the least athletic kid in most rooms, thinning out in adolescence. He was a bit of an egghead and he holds a doctorate in English. He is also a Christian, openly gay, and celibate, about which he writes compellingly in his first book, Single, Gay, Christian which I reviewed in 2017. You can see how he might struggle with fitting in.

And yet in his pursuit of Christ, he found belonging as well. But first, something of the story.

The book is written as a kind of a memoir, on the theme of being an alien, an image at once biblical, one that fits his story, and that he plays with in his “Notes From an Alien Anthropologist” at the beginning of each chapter. He traces his family story of how he became a TCK (Third Culture Kid), raised by Jesus movement converts who pursued mission work in Indonesia. He speaks with nostalgia about playing Pooh sticks with friends by the open sewer near his home. He describes airports as his favorite place–where everyone is a misfit and all are passing through and his struggle with national anthems, when one connected more with where he’d grown up than that of the country whose passport he held, and none connected with the one nation he’d given total allegiance to that had no national boundaries.

As a first year college student, he struggles with the question of how he can be from Indonesia with white skin. Three years later, a Christmas trip home results in a case of dengue fever, meaning he only return at the risk of a re-infection that would be far worse, closing the door on that part of his life.

In the second part of the book, he moves from the idea of belonging in a place to belonging with others. He describes the wedding of his boyhood friend Zack to Anna, both the joy and loss, and a wonderful visit to Chicago and a hilarious bingo game he and Anna made up during a Lord of the Rings marathon that sealed a new friendship. Carrie grew up in Indonesia, she and her husband Evan welcomed Greg into their Santai (Indonesian for “relax”) Sundays. There is a wonderful friendship with the Hennings and their boys Grant and Max, who at one point turn a painful conversation after Greg’s “coming out” into “the best Monday ever.”

The last part of the book is about “belonging to.” It begins with his willingness to let go of the importance of reputation to follow Christ when his first book was published, and to know there was One to whom he would always belong. He recalls his habit of giving out carrot sticks in high school, the people he came to know, and the realization that neighboring is giving with no thought of return. He writes of a critical reviewer who became a friend because of her review of his book and concludes with the tattoo that became his Ebenezer of Christ’s love for him.

This is a memoir that is funny at one moment, that takes one (at least this pudgy egghead) back to childhood at another, that catches you up with tears, and sparkles with the joy of one who has risked all to follow Christ’s call only to discover belonging on the other side of loss–of a congregation who does not let him go, of friends who welcome him for dinner and laundry and origami, and of a Christ who never stops loving. Through his own story, he points the way for all of us “aliens” who long to belong.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Seven Years of Food Posts


Last week’s post on slumgullion was popular. Perhaps your favorite activity was to post what they called it in your house. Goulash was the winner. Others called it American chop suey, beefaroni, and Johnny Marzetti. Then there were the more creative names: “goop,” pasta fazool, chili mac, macaroni and meat, “slop,” casserole, “Beefy barfaroni” (my favorite), “glum,” “slum,” Johnzetta, “slumgush,” “garbage,” and wishbone special. One thing I’ve learned about these things is that there is no point in insisting on the “right” name. It is whatever you called it at your house!

Food posts have been among the most popular of the posts in this series. I thought it might be fun to go back over seven years and revisit some of my favorites — and yours. Here they are from earliest to the present. If your mouth is not watering when I’m done, I question whether you are really from Youngstown!

Food. This whole series began with this post on May 10, 2014. I had been blogging less than a year. I’d written one previous post about Youngstown that was so-so. I thought I would try one more. It was a general post celebrating all the good food in Youngstown. In a couple days, over 10,000 people viewed it–something I had not had occur before. It was shared in some Youngstown Facebook groups and went viral. It persuaded me to keep writing about Youngstown and especially about food. So from time to time, I’ve written about the dishes we grew up with. [The link to Recipes of Youngstown that appears here is expired. There is a working link at the end of this article.]

Canfield Fair Food. Did you eat and drink your way through the fair? We sure did. I remembered some of our favorite foods from DiRusso’s to Strouss’ Malts to Parker’s Ice Cream.

Christmas Baking. I remember some of the things we baked during the Christmas holidays and include a scrumptious picture of pizzelles, a family favorite.

Pierogies. Many of us had them every Friday, especially during Lent, and some of our moms worked at the church pierogie sales.

Kolachi. Another one of those holiday favorites. This page gets lots of visits every Christmas and Easter. I also discovered that what we call kolachi is call “nut roll” elsewhere, and kolachi is something very different.

The Cookie Table. Only Youngstown and Pittsburgh residents know what cookie tables are and there is an ongoing dispute over who was first. I arm wrestled a Pittsburgh colleague to settle this at a Youngstown wedding. Needless to say, Youngstown won! This has been the most viewed post on my blog.

Wedding Soup. I always love returning to Youngstown to get good wedding soup. And I discovered that the “wedding” doesn’t refer to the marriage of two people but rather of greens and meat.

Haluski. Like slumgullion, this is a favorite Youngstown comfort food–a few simple ingredients with lots of variations, and a satisfied tummy at the end.

Brier Hill Pizza. This is a Youngstown original. I go into the origins of Brier Hill pizza and include some videos from St. Anthony’s Church in Brier Hill.

Tomatoes. We were a city of gardens, and we grew all kinds of tomatoes and had all kinds of ways to use them. I still grow ’em!

Elephant Ears. One of my favorite foods at the fair are elephant ears. Buy one, stroll, snack, and share, and lick the cinnamon and sugar off your fingers! I even include a video showing how to make them!

Spinning Bowl Salads. In college, we loved to go up to the 20th Century for spinning bowl salads. After posting this article, Morris Levy, one of the owners of the 20th Century, sent me a recipe, which I added to the post. Make your own!

Chicken Paprikash. This is one we owe to the Hungarian residents of the city. There is a fun video, “Cooking with Oma,” that you have to watch!

Italian Food. I write about how hard it is to find good Italian food when you are away from Youngstown, the great sauces, and all the good places to get Italian food, especially mom’s or grandmama’s kitchen.

Fried Baloney Sandwiches. My dad used to make these–the poor man’s steak. There is a backstory on this post. Facebook blocked it and kicked me off for a day because its automated censor thought my original image of frying baloney was something else. Needless to say, I changed the image!

Slumgullion. Posted just last week as I mentioned, but already highly viewed. Another one of those easily made, inexpensive comfort foods.

Some of the links in these posts no longer are live, a big problem with the internet. One of the continuing sources of information and recipes about the foods of Youngstown is the Recipes of Youngstown series. Over the years, the location where you can buy these has changed. Now Recipes of Youngstown has its own website and the cookbooks may be purchased online and in-person through the Youngstown Clothing Co. We have all three and they are great!

Well, that was fun! Food never tasted so good as it did in Youngstown. It wasn’t gourmet, it was just good. I’m glad people are keeping that alive. Hopefully this post, and those linked to it will help do that as well. And I’d love to hear about other dishes I may have forgotten.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Review: The Fire Within

The Fire Within: Desire, Sexuality, Longing, and God, Ronald Rohlheiser. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2021.

Summary: A collection of short meditations on human, and particularly sexual desire, contending these come from God and are meant to draw us to God.

With adolescence, we awaken to desire. Much of that is sexual desire and longing for intimacy. About the last thing most of us think of is any connection between our longings and our sexuality and God. Most of us just don’t think of God and sex going together.

Ronald Rohlheiser, speaks candidly of these longings, including his own experience of these as a young man in the novitiate. During a spiritual conference, a speaker spoke of how they must be “jumping out of their skins” and that this was how they should be feeling and it was healthy. As he studied more deeply, he discovered that far from these desires being distant from God, they came from God. He writes in the preface of this work:

“Sexuality is inside us to help lure us back to God, bring us into a community of life with each other, and let us take part in God’s generativity. If that is true, and it is, then given its origin and meaning, its earthiness notwithstanding, sex does not set us against what is holy and pure. It is a Godly energy” (p. xi).

Rohlheiser offers a series of twenty-two reflections expanding on this idea, each about four pages in length. The reflections are divided into two parts. The first focuses on desire and our complex humanity; the second on how we deal humanly and spiritually with desire.

He begins with how longing is at the center of our experience, that this space is a space for God. Instead of using guilt and shame to deal with raw desire, he proposes we help youth see this as God’s creative energy incarnate in our bodies. Our energies are not sinful or evil; only the misuse of them. He compares virgin youth to Jephthah, mourning her virginity. Too often, we demand satisfaction rather than learning to live in the ache of mourning. We are complex in our desires and need to honor and hallow this, learn through it, and live under God’s patience and understanding. Rohlheiser warns of the danger of grandiosity, a type of self-absorption in which desire is turned in on self in pride instead of drawing us to God. Given our complexity and longings never fully to be realized in this life, married or single, we may understand our lives as “unfinished symphonies.’

One of our challenges in dealing with our desires is how easily distracted we are. God’s invitation is to greater mindfulness and attentiveness. Sex is sacramental, filled with spiritual significance. So is everyday life, and we need to have our world re-enchanted. Other essays deal with barrenness, anger, and waiting. Perhaps one of the most illumining are his reflections on re-imagining chastity. He extends this beyond sexuality. The basic idea of chastity is to not force things but to honor their character and rhythms. He uses the example of metamorphosis, which, if rushed, results in a malformed moth or butterfly. Purity is not a matter, first of all of sexual self-control, but of intention, acting in ways that do not manipulate or use others, but align our actions with our commitments. Ultimately, the invitation is into a greatness of soul that can rejoice in the prodigal who returns rather than exacting payback, aware of the mercies we all have received.

It is a good thing these reflections are short because they are filled with insight. These are worth reading one at a time. More important is that they build on a doctrine of our creation as man and woman in the image of God. Our gender and sexuality and desires were created before the fall. Evil doesn’t create anything. It only distorts. Rohlheiser helps us move beyond shame and guilt about our desires to thanksgiving and celebration. From that, it is only a short step from realizing our desires are from God and for God, to wondering how they might be rightly expressed. Chastity and purity are matters of honor and intent rather than restrictive rules or patriarchal control.

One of the challenges facing the church is the articulation of a redemptive vision of sexuality. There is a beautiful story that has been lost in all the rules, the purity culture, the shaming, and the abuses and scandals. Rohlheiser recovers that beauty with both candor and insight. I wish I’d had this book when I was a much younger man, but his insights into our desires and our complexity, and the mystery and wonder of God’s purposes in it all continue to rejoice this heart.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side

The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, Agatha Christie (Miss Marple #9). New York: HarperCollins, 2011, originally published 1962.

Summary: A harmless busybody dies of a poisoned drink intended for a famous actress, the beginning of further threats, and murders that follow.

Marina Gregg, a celebrated but temperamental actress and her husband, Jason Rudd have re-habilitated a Victorian mansion once owned by a friend of Miss Marple, Dolly Bantry. They host a reception for distinguished guests and neighbors. Heather Badcock, a local do-gooder and busybody, who earlier had rendered assistance when Miss Marple had fallen by her house, eagerly greets the actress and tells the story of how she had met her years earlier, rising from her sickbed to get the actress’s autograph.

Subsequently she is jostled, spills her drink, and Marina Gregg offers hers. Minutes later Heather Badcock is dead, poisoned by an overdose of a tranquilizer used by everyone connected with the house, it seems. It dawns on both that the poison was meant for Marina. Subsequently, a cup of coffee intended for Marina is laced with arsenic. Then a secretary dies of an atomizer filled with cyanide as does a dress designer. The question is how the killer who is threatening Marina is gaining access.

And Miss Marple? Out of caution for her age, she has an overly-protective live in attendant, who she has to elude. Her doctor thinks she needs to do some “unraveling.” This case allows her that opportunity as her adopted “nephew,” Chief Inspector Craddock, seeks her perspective. As usual, she pays close attention to details–a stained dress and the “help” who saw the accident, the stories in the celebrity gossip magazines and the look on Marina’s face as she talked to Mrs. Badcock, from which the book takes its title, the look on Lady Shalott’s face when she saw the “mirror crack’d from side to side.” What was this look, and what caused it?

This was a delightful read and as always, it is fun to admire Miss Marple’s “spunk.” The ending surprised me, adding to the satisfaction. Side characters like Dolly Bantry, Dr. Haycock, and even Cherry, the housekeeper add to the pleasure. Agatha even sneaks in some commentary on the new “developments” and their lack of personality. No wonder they called Christie “the Queen of Mystery.”

Review: Art + Faith

Art + Faith, Makoto Fujimura, foreword by N. T. Wright. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021.

Summary: A series of reflections connecting art and faith in the act of making.

Makoto Fujimura is a world-class painter and committed Christian. Many would not make this association in contemporary art but in this work, Fujimura offers a series of reflections on the seamless connection of these in his life, beginning with the act of making. Fujimura declares, “I have come to believe that unless we are making something, we cannot know the depth of God’s being and God’s grace permeating our lives and God’s creation.” The creator we come to understand through making is one who creates out of love and not necessity. God doesn’t need us but in love invites us to collaborate in God’s creation. We enter into this when we make.

We labor in a fallen world, but our work is not to “fix” broken plumbing but to be restored and participate in creation’s renewal empowered by the spirit restored through the sacrifice of Christ, and refreshed by God’s new wine. Fujimura illustrates this in his own creative process of Nihonga. It is not so much a technique but a kind of imitatio Christi of attending to the materials one works with, as part of a community of those who make the brushes, the paper, and powders with which he lays down wash after wash in creating, slowing down to work at the painstaking pace required of the materials.

It is a process that takes him into sacrifice and an understanding of brokenness, evoking another Japanese art practice, that of kintsugi. This practice works with broken cups and pottery, using lacquer covered with gold to mend the broken pieces, creating new beauty out of brokenness. This art points toward the New Creation of Resurrection that doesn’t obliterate brokenness but shines light and beauty through it.

Art helps renew our understanding of work. Fujimura observes that work wasn’t cursed but rather the ground and the serpent. Art points us toward work as gift, and toward the greatest Gift of the gospel. In the Eucharist, we make the very elements that reveal God’s gift of resurrection through sacrifice. We make not for it all to be burned up but toward New Creation.

Fujimura proposes that imagination and faith are closely linked. We often think of Christian theology and leadership in rational, propositional terms. Fujimura notes how much of scripture is in metaphor, in symbol, and description requiring imagination for understanding. As he has argued elsewhere, this imagination invites us into culture care, contra the culture war, battle of ideas that has framed much of our cultural engagement.

In another reflection, he likens the words “Jesus wept” to the “pinhole lens” that captures the whole story of God from loving creation to weeping over the broken creation to be restored through Christ’s suffering and resurrection. He offers a beautiful reflection on John 11 and 12, and the art form of wabi-sabi, the use of well-worn but well-loved objects like a well-worn wallet. He goes deeper into the tears of Christ in the art of Mark Rothko, the poetry of T. S. Eliot, and his own traumatic experience of 9/11, which displaced him from a studio in the shadow of the Twin Towers. He weds tears and fire in a discussion of artistic renewal out of the devastation. He concludes with a chapter on “Lazarus culture” reflecting on what it means to practice resurrection. To make in a fallen, broken world is to enter into Christ’s suffering and be enabled by the resurrection to point toward the New Creation.

The power of this book is in the contention that as we enter into the making of art as people of faith, we open ourselves to a way of knowing the story in which we live. His most trenchant words are those where he asserts the vital importance of imagination and making in the life of faith. His reflections remind me of what a vital role artists play in the life of the church, and perhaps the value of all of us finding ways to be makers and not just consumers, of culture.

Review: The Splendid and the Vile

The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson. New York: Crown, 2020.

Summary: A day to day narrative of the first year as prime minister of Winston Churchill, focusing on the circle around him as well as how he inspired a nation fighting alone under the Blitz.

There are a number of biographies of Winston Churchill and studies of his leadership as prime minister during World War 2. What distinguishes this one is that Larson takes us into the intimate circle around Churchill, bringing the great man to life out of the pages of history. We become observers on the edge of an intimate circle rather than removed readers of history from eighty years ago during Churchill’s first year as prime minister.

We are with Churchill as he speaks in parliament or over radio broadcasts, not so much giving the people courage as helping them summon the courage and resolve that was in them. They would need it. Almost at once the bombings began, taking a frightful toll. We walk with Churchill among the ruins as people try to recover and go about their lives.

We get to know Churchill with his closest leadership, particularly the asthmatic but effective Max Beaverbrook who takes over aircraft production and doubles it. Beaverbrook had a genius for cutting through red tape and making enemies, but he got things done–between his resignations, which Churchill refused. The wisdom of Churchill was having someone so close who never told Churchill what he wanted to hear, but only the unvarnished truth, with no reverence for any institutions.

Larson takes us into the family circle: the reserved and opinionated Clementine, the dissolute Randolph, constantly mired in debt and affairs, to the distress of young Pamela, wife and mother, and Mary, the spirited youngest daughter discovering the world, love, and living with courage amid the restraints of her parents. She ends up heading up an anti-aircraft battery and recognizing her parents wisdom in rejecting her first love. John Colville rounds out the circle as Churchill’s secretary. His “intended” doesn’t return his affection, he wants to enter the air corps, but apart from a few sorties, serves with Churchill, in the process keeping a diary that is a treasure trove for historians like Larson.

We are acquainted with the ever-present dangers of the bombing, almost always at night, rendering the RAF ineffective, except in its own nighttime bombing of Germany. We learn of underground shelters for 10 Downing Street, the special hideaway of Churchill at Ditchley, rather than Checquers on the nights around the full moon. We glimpse the tragedy of the bombing of a nightclub that would have been Mary’s next stop on a night out. And we walk with and observe with Churchill, oblivious to dangers to his own person.

Another theme is Churchill’s clear perception of the vital importance the United States would play, and his vital role in maintaining the spirits and fight of the nation until it became politically possible for the U.S. to fully join the fight. As a career politician, he grasped Roosevelt’s challenges, working incrementally through the exchange of bases for materials and the passage of Lend-Lease. Of great fortune was the recall of Joseph Kennedy and the presence of Harry Hopkins and later Averill Harriman, both of whom Churchill welcomed into his inner circle and who became Churchill’s advocates with Roosevelt in consequence. It would cost Randolph’s marriage, already on the rocks, when Harriman and Pamela take up an affair.

Through it all is Churchill himself. I don’t think it is possible to write a bad book about Churchill because he is so interesting, even if sometimes exasperating! Larson gives us the man in full, from his demand to bathe twice daily wherever he went, dictating letters in bath and bed, to his prodigious alcohol consumption, the cigar which made him incomprehensible to his inspiring speeches and presence that made it clear to both his own country and Germany, that unlike the countries of the European mainland, there would be no surrender. This, too, was critical to the hoped for alliance with America.

What Larson has done is not just given us another biography or war history. He has helped us imagine being with Churchill during this first year from May 1940 to May 1941. Perhaps this is a good book for our time, when we are fighting a different, but it appears, no less protracted, combat. When life cannot be normal, we see what it is to live with day to day courage, resolve, and determination without losing heart.

Review: Jesus and John Wayne

Jesus and John Wayne, Kristen Kobes Du Mez. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2020.

Summary: A historical study of how the ideal of rugged masculinity typified by John Wayne influenced the evangelical embrace of authority, gender roles, and conservative, nationalist politics.

This is one of the most intensely discussed books in religious publishing over the past year. Kristen Kobes Du Mez, a Calvin University historian, offers a carefully documented account of the development of authoritarian, patriarchal and “muscular” models of masculinity which have invaded evangelical religious subculture and played a vital role in evangelical political engagement.

Her title is drawn from “Jesus and John Wayne,” a 1980’s Christian hit of the Gaither Vocal Band. She traces how Wayne’s muscular and sometimes violent form of masculinity supplanted the Jesus of the gospels as the evangelical model of masculinity. She traces the fascination with the square-jawed, passionate Billy Graham and the youth leader become family guru Bill Gothard as early figures in this trend, teachers like James Dobson and Tim LaHaye, media figures as diverse as Mel Gibson and Duck Dynasty, and military figures like Oliver North.

This is a movement not only about masculinity but patriarchal gender roles, supported oddly enough by women like Elizabeth Eliot, Phyllis Schlafly, and Marabel Morgan (remember The Total Woman?). Kobes Du Mez traces the influence of the Promise Keepers movement, John Eldredge’s books, Pastor Douglas Wilson, Mark Driscoll, and John Piper in upholding militant masculinity and male control of families. More troubling yet are the connections between this culture, purity teaching, and sexual abuse.

The book also traces the exploitation of this vision of masculinity by the conservative political movement from the presidencies of Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump. The author challenges the argument advanced by some that only “unchurched” embrace these values. She shows studies that demonstrate high numbers of the most faithful have been equally supportive. She argues that Trump’s rough masculinity appealed to a subculture schooled for seventy years on “John Wayne” models of masculinity and helped explain their willingness to overlook his moral flaws and failings.

This is a deeply troubling account, especially since I’ve witnessed the damage of women abused and not protected by the church, and the thwarting of the gifts of women eager to use them to follow Christ. This is an important but uncomfortable book for men in church leadership to read and wrestle with. Many of us have been troubled by the political allegiance of large swaths of evangelicalism with one political party. What this book connected for me is the connection between these allegiances and flawed masculine and gender role ideals. I also found troubling the complicity of much of the Christian bookselling industry in promoting these views.

If I would have any objection, it is that the narrative does not offer counter-examples, including the Christian institution at which the author holds tenure. We hear of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood but there is no mention of the Council of Biblical Equality. We hear of scholars like Wayne Grudem and John Piper but not of Craig Keener and Aida Besancon Spencer and many others supportive of equal partnership between men and women in marriage and ministry. Nor do we hear of egalitarian churches and ministries, except a passing reference to Beth Moore. Although these movements have not achieved the political influence nor the rank and file embrace of many evangelicals, they offer a counter-narrative that may point the way forward. Many of these operate in what Ross Douthat calls “the evangelical penumbra” and may be increasingly uncomfortable with the identifier “evangelical” for reasons this book makes abundantly clear.

The challenge these groups face, underscored by this book, is to articulate a compelling vision for men and women following Christ, of Christian character and the fruit of the Spirit, lived out in both marriage and ministry partnerships, committed to pursuing the missio dei rather than political influence. Neither the culture of the 1950’s or the 2020’s can help us. Only the real Jesus of the Gospels.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Slumgullion

Slumgullion, Image credit: Alleko Licensed by iStock

The temperatures are starting to get cooler. The sun is lower in the sky. It brings back memories of late afternoon, after-school tag football games at Borts Field. By the time I got home and cleaned up, I was starved! At least I thought so.

One of the favorite comfort foods mom made was slumgullion. It was also called goulash, American goulash, American chop suey, or if it came out of a can, Beefaroni. In Columbus, where I now live, there is a cheesier version, known as Johnny Marzetti from its origins at Marzetti’s Restaurant in Columbus. In both my family and my wife’s, it was slumgullion.

At its most basic, slumgullion used macaroni noodles (or penne), 1-2 pounds of ground beef, onions, and tomato sauce (or pasta sauce or marinara). Whereas Johnny Marzetti adds a thick layer of cheddar cheese and was baked as a casserole, you might sprinkle grated cheddar over the top of the dish after all the ingredients were mixed and you’d be set.

Basically, you boiled your pasta, while sautéing your onions (and whatever else you added, like garlic, celery, chopped tomatoes, and peppers) and then adding your ground beef and browning it, draining off the fat. Then you added your sauce and your favorite herb-spice blend, heat it all through, and then mix it in with your pasta, sprinkle cheese over it, warm it through if needed and serve!

Seasoning is where you really make this dish yours. You can go for a traditional Italian mix of Italian seasoning, oregano, basil, rosemary, and parsley. I’ve also seen versions of the recipe with taco seasoning, or Indian curry. I might add my condiment of choice, sriracha sauce to add some zip. This is one of those dishes where “season to taste” is the rule.

It was the perfect working class meal for those cool autumn evenings. It was simple to make, filling, and inexpensive and made the house smell wonderful. Chances are, sooner or later you would have dinner with a friend and then there was the dilemma of whose mom made the best slumgullion. If you were smart, you just said it was “real good” and kept your thoughts to yourself.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Review: On Immunity

On Immunity–An Inoculation, Eula Biss. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014.

Summary: A collection of essays about vaccines, immunity, fears, risks, and related concerns about environmental pollutants and other dangers faced by the human community.

A few caveats at the beginning of this review. One is that this book was published in 2014. So it was not written in the context of our current polemics about vaccines to combat COVID-19. Also, the author is not a scientist but a talented writer who has won a number of literary awards and is currently an Artist in Residence at Northwestern University. She is the daughter of an oncolgist. She is also the mother of a child suffering many allergies.

The essays in this work reflect her background as an academic, writer, child of a doctor, and a mother. It is evident that she extensively researched this work. She explores the history of vaccination from which we learn that the term comes from the Latin name for the cowpox virus, from which the vaccinated developed immunity to smallpox. She explores how the understanding of immunity developed over the years, earlier issues with the safety of vaccination, and contemporary research and reporting systems that confirm the high level of safety and rarity of risks.

She makes an important point that the effectiveness of vaccines isn’t simply for individuals but for the communities within which they live and travel. Vaccines limit or eliminate infections when a large portion of the population is vaccinated. At one point she challenges the flawed reasoning that one doesn’t need to get vaccinated because others are. This only works when very few think that way, and an ethic that you can’t commend universally runs afoul of Kant’s categorical imperative. She observes, “Immunity is a shared space—a garden we tend together.”

But she is also a mom who wants to do the right thing for her child. Her personal concerns lead her to a sympathetic examination of the fears of others, the sources of reports about autism, and various contaminants in vaccines. She both acknowledge the continuing influence of these reports and how extensive research studies have refuted all of them. She explores the question of risk, and how highly unlikely risks, like a rare side effect that may be attributed to a vaccine, and the much more prevalent and often more serious risks of the disease vaccines are meant to prevent. In the end, she comes down on the side of vaccination–but hardly in an unthinking, “sheeple” fashion. She gently challenges being more afraid of inoculation than disease, and the luxury of entertaining fears that most of the world can’t afford.

She considers other chemicals in our environment from triclosan in our liquid soaps to plastics in our foods, drink bottles, and mattresses. She comes to recognize that there is no absolute immunity we can confer on ourselves or our children from all that could render harm. She experiences this herself when she required transfusion after nearly dying from an inverted uterus during childbirth, and has to trust the safety of the blood she is given. She balances this sense of our vulnerability with our amazing immune system, that can handle multiple vaccines at once because it responds to thousands of threats every day. She asks hard questions, reviews research and doesn’t simply accept authority, but also acts on the best evidence of the science.

The book wanders a bit. It is a collection of essays, not strictly a scientific or history piece. But it is also a human piece, rather than a clinical account or research paper. Biss does what we all need to do–listen, ask questions, be the parent, and learn to discern between flawed and reliable information, and make the best decisions one can. In many ways, this may be a helpful read for those with concerns about vaccines. It challenges us to make decisions not from a place of narcissism but enlightened self interest that also considers the common good. It is written from outside the current polemics, but reflects the concerns so many of us have.

What Makes A Great Series?

The books I’ve read so far in Louise Penny’s “Chief Inspector Armand Gamache” series

Many readers love a good series, no matter what genre. I think of Orson Scott Card’s “Enders” series in science fiction, Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” in fantasy, Sharon Kay Penman’s historical fiction, Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher” books, and Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, just to name of few. Louise Penny’s “Chief Inspector Armand Gamache” has provided a welcome diversion during the months of the pandemic–I’ve gotten through eleven of the seventeen books currently in the series.

What makes a great series? I think there are a number of factors. Here are some that are important to me.

Characters. I think this is foremost to me. Overall, I need to like the characters, especially the lead character or characters. In a series, I’m going to spend a lot of time with them. Would I enjoy having them to dinner or driving across country with them? I might not like all of them, but the chemistry of the ensemble is important. The one thing that is hard is when an author kills off a character we’ve come to care for.

Relationships. It is not only that we like individuals, but we like the relationships, such as between swashbuckling Jack Aubrey and the intelligent and somewhat mysterious Maturin. Of course, there is the classic relationship of Holmes and Watson. In Elizabeth Peabody’s Amelia Peabody series, you just have to love the relationship between Amelia and Emerson. In the Gamache series, there are multiple relationships–Armand and Gamache, Beauvoir and Ruth, Olivier and Gabri, and of course, Ruth and Rosa.

Setting: From the world-making of fantasy to the physical setting of a mystery series, setting matters. Louise Penny has created a fictional village many of us wish really existed. Good thing it doesn’t because we’d all move there and ruin it. Rivendell, and much of Middle Earth seems like the ideal place to live.

Development. I think of characters and plot. Do the characters grow? It doesn’t have to be linear. It can be fun when they surprise us. Part of what makes a good series as opposed to simply a collection of books with the same characters is a developing plot line, or even several plotlines. The corruption in the Surete in the Gamache stories and the development of Clara’s art, and the implications for Peter and others. This often means layered writing, where several plots are developing, with at least one coming to some kind of closure.

Stand-alone stories. I’ve read books in series that really felt like they were just serving as bridges to a subsequent book. While series work best when read in order, that doesn’t happen. I read #11 in the Gamache series because that is the one I first acquired. I thoroughly enjoyed it and was persuaded to go back to Still Life and read the series in order. I’m now up to #11, The Nature of the Beast, which I will re-read to see how it reads a second time.

Writing. Most series writers are not literary giants. What is helpful is prose that doesn’t get in the way. Some do this by page-turning action. Others are more “mental” and draw us into the psychology of characters. Some achieve a gradual build-up of tension that keep you reading.

They know when to end. For one thing, writers are mortal. Sometimes they write when they are past the peak of their powers. Sometimes they die before they finish, notably Robert Jordan in his “Wheel of Time” series. I thought Elizabeth Peters’ last books weren’t up to the standard of her earlier ones. Perhaps it is a human thing for one’s reach to exceed one’s grasp. And we don’t always know when death is coming. Sometimes the series itself needs to end, and it is best to go out strong rather than write one more subpar book.

I think a series appeals to the longing of every reader to know there are more good books to read than just the one in your hand. When I started over on Gamache, it was delightful to think that there were fourteen more (then fifteen and now sixteen) to go, hopefully each better than the last, or at least revealing new aspects of one’s favorite character’s persona.